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Natural Treatments for Eczema

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Updated April 16, 2014

What is Eczema?

Also known as: atopic eczema, atopic dermatitis, infantile eczema

Eczema is a chronic skin disorder characterized by itching rashes, which may be red, scaly, dry, or leathery. There may be skin blisters with oozing and crusting.

Eczema usually occurs for the first time in infants, with rashes typically occuring on the cheeks, elbows or knees. Eczema, although often less of a problem in adulthood, can persist, especially if a person is exposed to allergens or chemical irritants or is under stress. In adults, eczema is commonly located on the inner elbow or behind the knee.

People with eczema frequently have family members with asthma, hay fever, or eczema.

Natural Remedies for Eczema

1) Probiotics

Probiotics, or "good" bacteria, are live microbial organisms naturally found in the digestive tract. They are thought to suppress the growth of potentially harmful bacteria, influence immune function, and strengthen the digestive tract's protective barrier.

Studies suggest that babies at high risk for allergic disorders such as eczema have different types and numbers of bacteria in their digestive tracts than other babies, and that probiotic supplements taken by pregnant women and children may reduce the occurrence eczema in children.

A large, long-term study examined whether the use of a probiotic supplement or a placebo could influence the incidence of eczema in infants. Researchers randomized 1223 pregnant women carrying high-risk babies to use a probiotic supplement or a placebo for 2 to 4 weeks before deliver.

Starting from birth, infants received the same probiotics as their mothers had plus galacto-oligosaccharides (called a "prebiotic" because it has been shown to help multiple strains of beneficial bacteria flourish) for 6 months. After 2 years, the probiotics were significantly more effective than placebo at preventing eczema.

In addition to the use of probiotics to prevent eczema, probiotics have also been explored as a treatment for infants and children who already have eczema. Some studies have found that probiotics alleviate symptoms of eczema only in infants and children who are sensitized to food allergens.

Researchers are testing different strains of bacteria to see if one particular strain is more effective for eczema. One of the most commonly used probiotic strains used in eczema studies is Lactobacillus GG. Other strains used include Lactobacillus fermentum VRI-033 PCC, Lactobacillus rhamnosus, Lactobacillus reuteri, and Bifidobacteria lactis. The prebiotic galacto-oligosaccharides has also been used.

Consult a qualified health professional before using probiotics. Children with immune deficiencies should not take probiotics unless under a practitioner's supervision. For more information about probiotics, read Acidophilus and Other Probiotics.

2) Topical Herbal Creams and Gels

Gels and creams made from herbal extracts of chamomile, licorice, and witch hazel have been explored to reduce symptoms of eczema. The following are results of some of the preliminary studies.
  • A double-blind study compared a 1% and 2% licorice gel compared to a placebo gel for eczema. After two weeks, both the 1% and 2% licorice gels were more effective than the placebo gel, and the 2% gel was more effective at reducing redness, swelling, and itching than the 1% gel.

  • A study compared chamomile cream to 0.5% hydrocortisone cream or placebo. After two weeks, the chamomile cream was more effective than the hydrocortisone cream, but was not significantly more effective than the placebo cream. This study was not double-blind, so it cannot be used as proof that chamomile cream is effective for eczema.

  • In a German double-blind study, 72 people with moderately severe eczema used either a placebo cream containing witch hazel extract, 0.5% hydrocortisone cream, or the cream alone for 14 days. The hydrocortisone was more effective than witch hazel. Witch hazel was not significantly more effective than the placebo cream.
Consult a qualified practitioner before using any topical herbal applications. Some herbs, such as chamomile, are known to cause allergic contact dermatitis.

3) Gamma-linolenic Acid

Gamma-linolenic acids (GLA), such as evening primrose oil and borage oil, are a type of essential fatty acid. GLA has been shown to correct deficiencies in skin lipids that can trigger inflammation, which is why it is thought to help with eczema. However, recent, well-designed clinical studies with GLA have generally found that it does not help with eczema.

For example, one double-blind study examined the use of borage oil (500 mg a day) or placebo in 160 adults with moderate eczema. After 24 weeks, the overall effectiveness was not significantly better with borage oil compared with the placebo.

Find out more about GLA.

Sources

Brouwer ML, Wolt-Plompen SA, Dubois AE, van der Heide S, Jansen DF, Hoijer MA, Kauffman HF, Duiverman EJ. No effects of probiotics on atopic dermatitis in infancy: a randomized placebo-controlled trial. Clin Exp Allergy. 36.7 (2006): 899-906.

Henz BM, Jablonska S, van de Kerkhof PC, Stingl G, Blaszczyk M, Vandervalk PG, Veenhuizen R, Muggli R, Raederstorff D. Double-blind, multicentre analysis of the efficacy of borage oil in patients with atopic eczema. Br J Dermatol. 140.4 (1999): 685-688.

Kalliomaki M, Salminen S, Poussa T, Arvilommi H, Isolauri E. Probiotics and prevention of atopic disease: 4-year follow-up of a randomised placebo-controlled trial. Lancet. 361.9372 (2003): 1869-1871.

Korting HC, Schafer-Korting M, Klovekorn W, Klovekorn G, Martin C, Laux P. Comparative efficacy of hamamelis distillate and hydrocortisone cream in atopic eczema. Eur J Clin Pharmacol. 48.6 (1995): 461-465.

Kukkonen K, Savilahti E, Haahtela T, Juntunen-Backman K, Korpela R, Poussa T, Tuure T, Kuitunen M. Probiotics and prebiotic galacto-oligosaccharides in the prevention of allergic diseases: A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 119.1 (2007): 192-198.

Moro G, Arslanoglu S, Stahl B, Jelinek J, Wahn U, Boehm G. A mixture of prebiotic oligosaccharides reduces the incidence of atopic dermatitis during the first six months of age. Arch Dis Child. 91.10 (2006): 814-819.

Patzelt-Wenczler R, Ponce-Poschl E. Proof of efficacy of Kamillosan(R) cream in atopic eczema. Eur J Med Res. 5.4 (2000): 171-175.

Saeedi M, Morteza-Semnani K, Ghoreishi MR. The treatment of atopic dermatitis with licorice gel. J Dermatolog Treat. 14.3 (2003): 153-157.

Sistek D, Kelly R, Wickens K, Stanley T, Fitzharris P, Crane J. Is the effect of probiotics on atopic dermatitis confined to food sensitized children? Clin Exp Allergy. 36.5 (2006): 629-633.

Taylor AL, Dunstan JA, Prescott SL. Probiotic supplementation for the first 6 months of life fails to reduce the risk of atopic dermatitis and increases the risk of allergen sensitization in high-risk children: A randomized controlled trial. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 119.1 (2007): 184-191.

Viljanen M, Savilahti E, Haahtela T, Juntunen-Backman K, Korpela R, Poussa T, Tuure T, Kuitunen M. Probiotics in the treatment of atopic eczema/dermatitis syndrome in infants: a double-blind placebo-controlled trial. Allergy. 60.4 (2005): 494-500.

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